Friday, December 13, 2013

from information superhighway to web to stream to THE GREAT BEYOND

An Atlantic article, The Year 'the Stream' Crested, wonders if people are getting burnt out the endless wall style of running into information, and will withdraw from the sense of being "permanently unfinished". (The subheadline of the piece asks "The Stream is fun and fast, but don't you miss the sense of an ending?", and is therefore subject to Betteridge's Law of Headlines)

The Internet of the mid-90s had a much different vibe than the place today. Authors could make books, physical dead-tree books, full of interesting links on the "information superhighway". Yahoo made its mark by providing a searchable set of links that were submitted and vetted by humans-- nowadays, we'd call that "curated"-- and then Google came along and made a new, searchable world where the reputation of a site mattered more than its ability to stuff the keyword you were searching for 100,000 time in its hidden content. This is when the Web really came into its own, because Google made the interconnectedness really matter.

The early-2000s were an interesting time. People were empowered to carve out their own niche on the web and the era was marked by the Rise of the Blogs.  Word-of-mouth and Google would let these sites gain regular audiences. Some of the more popular blogs, like BoingBoing or to a lesser extent Slashdot, had multiple editors to select the content, and a link from a popular site could send hitcounts skyrocketing.

And then came Facebook. Its News Feed was a powerful idea: by showing what people were posting on their Walls, you had a single age that was an aggregation of content by somewhat-like minded people. This was more egalitarian than the old blog model. (Those democratic notions were pushed even further on sites like Reddit, allowing popular links to be voted into attention in more global ways, not just among overlapping groups of Friends) They weren't the first to offer this "one stop shopping" view (I think of LiveJournal's Friends page (among other examples)) and they certainly aren't the only: Tumbler and especially Twitter are centered on that very concept. However, Facebook combined this type of Stream with the ability to connect with people you know in the real world, and started doing so at a time when most other sites were still letting people pick their own identities, ala AOL back in the day.

I think Facebook really changed the nature of the Web. For many years my personal website was the center of the online world for me and several friends, and had a vibrant comments section (as crappy and homebrew and prone to occasional spammer attacks as it was) -- in the late part of the last decade, that went away. Similarly my romance poetry site Love Blender went from having 400 submissions of poems a month in 2004 to 20 or so now. Now, this might just mean I'm a bad web marketer, and that's true, but I've heard of other similar experience people have had, and I really think Facebook is the harbinger of that change. It's simply more compelling to have a bunch of your friends finding interesting stuff than one friend, or a group of strangers.

So what now? This Wired article from earlier this year sees the future as all-stream, all-the-time. An article on (I find its reticence to label itself with a date irksome) rejects this and sees the traditional web of information at fixed retrievable locations reigning supreme. The answer, as always, is somewhere in between. The Stream taps into the deep "fear of missing out", as well as promising all-too-easy distractions from the workaday world. But the fixing of these infonuggets at reliable locations in cyberspace (man, remember that word?) is critical as well, both for sharing and for the benefit of our future selves, making sure that retrieval tomorrow is possible.


  1. Another aspect of the stream-vs-blog format is that blog posts and site pages are meant to be permanent, to be referenceable forever. Whereas the stream is entirely ephemeral. If there is a way to link to a specific FB post, I don't know what it is. Each nugget is only relevant for about 10 minutes.

    1. No idea why this posted anonymously, but this is John K

  2. Kirk, I sympathize, strongly, with your penultimate paragraph. Lately, I've been thinking that cross-posting, combined with OpenID, OAuth, and SAML support (plus whatever else comes along in the general SSO vein), is the best option. That, and some interface which allows me (and my users, in the case of my Web site[s]) to selectively cross-post. One post may belong on my main personal Web site and Facebook, but not on Twitter or LinkedIn; another may belong on my personal but not business Twitter, and LinkedIn but not Facebook. This way, people can see content where and when they like, and I can also easily maintain an archive of all of my own original content, regardless of where it was published.